Rabbits and Railways

A one-time revenue source - and unwelcome tunnellers. . . . . . . .

Part of the permanent way ganger’s duties was to examine tracks, embankments and cuttings for burrowing damage caused by rabbits. This Great Western Railway ganger is examining his length by velocipede. Photo: Great Western Trust.

In the days when rabbits were an important part of the national human diet, they were also an important part of railway companies’ perishables traffic. A review of railway rabbit traffic in 1906 showed how just important this was in the South West of England. Farmers obviously wanted rabbits off their land and got in professional trappers who worked mainly in the months between October and March. They got free board and lodging at farmhouses and received a penny or penny-halfpenny per head. Some earned between £25 and £50 per month (that’s up to £6,450 at 2021 prices). Farmers were also selling rabbits in their villages for threepence a head. Rabbits were shipped as perishables traffic (like game, poultry, meat and fish) from the South West towards London, the Midlands and the North packed in hampers in vans attached to principal trains. The Great Western Railway (GWR) in 1906 was charging a halfpenny per pound weight of dead rabbits for loads above 24lbs weight for distances between 100 and 200 miles. Banbury became an important centre for receiving and forwarding rabbit traffic. Almost every station in Devon and Cornwall shipped a few hampers of rabbits every day at an average of five shillings per hamper. The main GWR stations dealing with the traffic were Kingsbridge, St Columb Road, Moretonhampstead, Truro, Dulverton, East Anstey, Tiverton and Helston. South Molton station on the Taunton to Barnstaple line ran a “rabbit special” train almost daily to convey the vast number of rabbits caught in the area. The Newquay branch in Cornwall also produced very high numbers of shipments. These were very popular with butchers as the local soil was sandy and the rabbits were cleaner than those from clay areas. Branch lines in Wales which were probably unremunerative might have boosted their limited receipts with rabbit traffic, with one such example being the Whitland to Cardigan branch – the “Cardi Bach”. Some railway staff did their employers a favour by catching rabbits for the pot, regarded as a fringe benefit by some. Non-railway people in search of rabbits with traps, guns, dogs or ferrets found on railway land normally ended up with a fine for trespass if they were apprehended. However, there was a lot of remote mileage to police and many got away with their dinner.

Friend, foe or furry trainspotter ?

Now to the present day. Rabbits have caused problems between Northallerton and Eaglescliffe on the East Coast route; around the West Coast Main Line in the Rugby area, and the Perth to Inverness route in Scotland. These are examples of just a few places where over many years rabbits had undermined the track or caused other potential problems. To ensure a safe and reliable railway, measures needed to be taken to remove and prevent the furry menace. A mixture of trapping, fencing and netting vulnerable sites is sometimes necessary to stabilise railway track and prevent landslips and subsidence caused by burrowing and expanding warrens. Extreme weather such as heavy rainfall due to climate change may exacerbate the problems, especially with particular soil types. Embankments and cuttings on Network Rail’s 20,000 miles of track, along with the land surrounding it, is fair game so far as rabbits are concerned. They had a hard time in the 1950s with myxomatosis severely reducing their numbers, but increasing immunity coupled with their well-deserved reputation for breeding has seen the population increase greatly. Female rabbits (does) can produce litters of between three and seven babies each month in the breeding season. Of course, there are human, animal and avian predators, but any out-of-town rail journey on a fine day will probably show how well the species likes its railways and watching the trains go by.

Mike Peart

Mike Peart is a former railwayman on British Railways (Western Region). He is co-author of Volumes 3 (Freight Marshalling Yards), 4 (Level Crossings) and 5 (Train Detection and Control) of the “History & Development of Railway Signalling in the British Isles” series, and Trains of Hope”, all published by The Friends of the National Railway Museum. He’s been an active Friend of the NRM since 1994 and was one of the four “schoolboy” founder members of the Great Western Society (Didcot Railway Centre) in 1961.

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